The expendable among us.
Bill Moyers interviews David Simon, creator of the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," in Guernica. It's among the most riveting Q&A's I've read.
The eloquent Simon is relentless in his belief, not easily disputed, that America's large underclass - at least 10% of the American population, or 31 million people, the entire population of Canada - is a victim of deliberate neglect. It has no voice, no vote, no lobbyists. And, as in Canada, the middle class and the leadership class are content with that.
I urge you to read the entire interview.
A guy coming out of addition at 30, 35, because if often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. These really are excess people in America. Our economy doesn't need them - we don't need 10% to 15% of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we're actually including them in the American ideal, but we're not. And they're not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoos is this multibillion-dollar drug trade. [Emphasis added.]
Simon, proud resident of hard-scrabble Baltimore, does what policymakers typically don't do. The latter mostly talk among themselves, academics and even anti-poverty activists talking among themselves. Simon has spent years living among people with troubled lives, and only in that way can one see the impact of employers who refuse to hire "certain people" or even locate in troubled neighborhoods; of police officers, not adequately paid in most parts of North America, seeking promotion (the only means of obtaining a raise) by racking up scores of almost effortlessly made drug-related arrests per month rather than commit to one investigation-intensive arrest in a far more serious criminal act; and the utter lack of support for people who've served their prison sentence and then are simply dumped back into the cesspool where they got into trouble in the first place, offered no opportunity for a reinvented life.
In my own work reporting on homelessness - which is not so much people on the street as tens of thousands of "marginally housed" people forced to live with abusive partners or in squalid, dirt-cheap accommodation - I've had to listen to a lot of stories, not one the same as another, to determine, for instance, the large role that psychiatric illness plays in lives made futile. And to learn how "normal" people became helpless. One troubled acquaintance feared coming out in her small, northern Ontario town, and relocated to the alien environment of big city Toronto at 16 to escape the wrath of her parents over her sexual orientation - soon falling into a life of prostitution and physical abuse for lack of education and other traditional supports. Another friend, a senior corporate manager, was wandering the streets - why? Because in the short space of two months, his wife had abandoned him for another man, which he was convinced was his fault; his best friend had committed suicide, also his fault; and his employer, fallen on hard times, had laid him off in the process of shutting down entirely. These are pits difficult to climb out of, even with the determined help of others. We readily characterize these fellow citizens as authors of their own misfortune, having not troubled to learn their stories.
Simon (shown left) of course has chronicled these stories, moving Moyers to think of him as a latter-day Charles Dickens, he of the fantastically detailed descriptions of everyday life in 19th century Britain.
These last two posts are not intended as progressive observations. Crime and incarceration are largely preventable enormous costs to society, not least because we deprive ourselves of the nation-building contribution of 1 in 10 people, at a minumum, among us. Poverty, most of it endemic and of many generations standing, begets poverty among undernourished and abused children, which begets hopelessness and ultimately crime, which inflicts death, injury and property damage, lining the pockets of insurance companies, depriving communities of skilled workers, role models, church elders, neighborhood volunteers and much else that is good, while chasing away economic development and tourism revenues from huge portions of our cities.
Social behavior is a deeply moral field of inquiry. But we must also heed its enormous economic impact. Seen that way, the unnnecessary existence of an underclass becomes all the more intolerable to the caring society, the truly prosperous one.